Performance/Cardiff Dance Festival 2015
Director and choreographer: Sally Marie
Music director and pianist: Brian Ellsbury
Dancers: Faith Prendergast, Daniel Whiley, Karl Fagerlund Brekke
Singer: Sioned Terry
The Dance House, Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff, 22 November 2015
We know so little about other people’s lives, beyond the bare facts. Look up biographical details for Morfydd Owen (1891-1918) and you will learn facts: of her prodigious output as a composer, of how admired she was as a young person both for her music and her beauty, and of her tragically early death at the age of 26 after an operation for appendicitis, supervised at home by her doctor husband, Ernest Jones. Her setting of the Welsh hymn ‘Gweddi y Pechadur’ (‘The Sinner’s Prayer’) is a popular choice for sopranos and tenors in Eisteddfodau. Of the rest of her music little is heard these days. A recent and rare exception was her setting of a poem by A E Housman, ‘Twas on the way to Ludlow town’, programmed by the ever-adventurous Iain Burnside in an English Song Weekend concert in May of this year. In fact that song is probably much more typical of her song repertoire than the Welsh warhorse.
In Sweetshop Revolution’s piece we hear several of Morfydd Owen’s songs sung by Welsh mezzo Sioned Terry. They are charming, folksong-influenced pieces, amongst them a setting of Blake’s ‘The Lamb’, and ‘The Slumber Song of the Madonna’ to words by Alfred Noyes. We also hear some of her piano pieces, played with evident love and care by Brian Ellsbury.
For all that, I loved you and I loved you is about much more than reviving Morfydd Owen’s music. Yes, it champions and showcases her music, but it does so as a manifestation of her inner life alongside another way of showing that, which is through movement. Furthermore, the piece seeks to show the inner lives of two other people who were important to Morfydd, her husband Ernest and her close friend and possibly lover, Eliot Crawshay-Williams. It plays out the dance of the relationships between the three of them, to which the music is much more a counterpoint than an accompaniment.
The bare facts are that Morfydd met Eliot when she was 19 and he 31. She had set a poem of his to music. He encouraged her parents to let her go to London to study, which she did. How much they met after that is speculation, but they corresponded and the letters remain, revealing at least that Morfydd had passionate feelings for Eliot. But he, married, unfaithful, divorced and remarried, with a political career in ruins, was never going to be a life partner for Morfydd. She met Ernest, a psychotherapist, at a party and married him weeks later in spite of her parents’ disapproval, writing to Eliot to tell him that she had done so. We hear in I loved you and I loved you that Ernest wrote to Freud that she had played her last public concert because he had ‘captured her’. She did perform again, but only 18 months later she was dead.
The story spun in the dance, drama and music of this piece takes the bare facts and plays out what might lie beneath them – the pull and push of the complex emotions stirred in all three, the possible inspirations of Morfydd’s music. The dancers are all superb artists, with Faith Prendergast outstanding as Morfydd, waif-like in appearance, carried, lifted and tossed like a small boat on a stormy sea by the men who (may or may not) compete for her affections, but surviving it all through her inner strength and determination. Costume designer Emma Bailey deserves a credit for her clever use of fabrics in helping to convey Morfydd’s character.
The two men individually demonstrate their internal torments and tortures. They dance to Morfydd’s tune, literally and metaphorically. Ernest, who has been exploring aspects of anal eroticism in his work, brings it to the stage as well, in a scene of nudity which is distinctly unerotic and distressing to Morfydd.
Sally Marie’s choreography skilfully interweaves the tsunami-like waves of emotion with calmer and sometimes playful moments, such as Ernest and Morfydd’s courtship scene in which they tease one another with a red apple. Mezzo Sioned Terry is also drawn into the dance a little, although her movement felt a little tentative and awkward at times, perhaps because there has been a change of singer during the tour of the piece? That said, her performance of ‘Gweddi y Pechadur’ at the climax of the piece was intense and moving.
There is also recorded music used – most of it composed by Morfydd, we are told, including a rather lovely choral piece. I enjoyed the aural manipulations, here a sound as of a fairground organ, there a catching like a scratch on a record. And did I fancy I heard Onward Christian Soldiers, distorted by bells, during one scene of agitation? There was no listing of the music in the programme, which I would have liked, but I read that publication of Morfydd Owen’s music from the piece is forthcoming, which is much to be welcomed. Furthermore Sally Marie has ambitions to make an opera about Morfydd’s life and music in time for the centenary of her death in 2018. Bring it on!